WAC altering basketball tournament formats by introducing bold new seeding concept based on advanced analytics

The Western Athletic Conference is changing how it seeds its postseason basketball tournaments by introducing an intrepid, evolutionary concept to the sport. The 2022-23 season will see the WAC’s men’s and women’s basketball standings be determined not just by conference wins and losses, but also an algorithm that rewards and/or punishes based off performance against all teams they face in the regular season.

In what’s believed to be a first in the history of college sports: a conference will seed its postseason tournament based on advanced analytics.

This means that, in the WAC, it’s possible a team could finish with the second-best league record but end up seeded, say, fourth or fifth. Conversely, a team with the eighth-best record but with a more impressive résumé of wins could be rewarded for its degree of difficulty and earn a higher seed than its place in the traditional conference standings.

WAC commissioner Brian Thornton and associate commissioner Drew Speraw, both former basketball coaches, are the architects of the idea. They commissioned Ken Pomeroy — proprietor of KenPom.com — to concoct a reliable formula that would accurately reflect the achievements of WAC teams from early November until right before the WAC basketball tournaments begin in March. Thornton first went to Pomeroy with this concept when the conference was at risk of games being canceled due to COVID-19. That led to Thornton and Speraw mulling how such a method could be used for competitive balance and meritocratic representation beyond mere wins and losses in league play. College basketball has embraced advanced analytics for over a decade at this point. This is an extension of that philosophy.

“The goal (is) ultimately to protect the highest résumé with the highest seeds,” Thornton told CBS Sports. “As we were coming up with this strategic plan from a basketball standpoint — which was one of my big tasks when I came here — nonconference scheduling always came up. … And ultimately, it becomes very hard to penalize people for what you’re able to do from a nonconference scheduling standpoint.”

The league is referring to this sorting metric as the WAC Résumé Seeding System. If a WAC team plays a tough opponent and wins, it will receive more statistical credit than if it plays a weaker opponent (and also wins). Conversely, if a WAC team plays a tough opponent and loses, it will not be dinged as harshly as if it plays a significantly weaker opponent and loses.

Wins and losses is a zero-sum result. But beating a top-50 team is a much bigger accomplishment than beating a team that rates somewhere in the 300s. The WAC’s seeding initiative will reflect that reality. The algorithm will account for where games are played (at home, on the road, on a neutral court) and will be based on the NCAA’s NET ranking, which is the selection committees’ primary sorting tool for seeding and selecting the NCAA’s basketball tournaments.

“Essentially, what we came up with was a way to utilize the NET in order to provide the reward/penalties for a particular game,” Speraw told CBS Sports. “It’s weighted depending on where the game is at, just as the committee would look at it, and so it’s a system where, essentially, we’re trying to promote Quad 1, Quad 2 games. And so when you look at it, not every game is worth the same inside Quad 1, Quad 2, just as the committee would look at that. Obviously, a top-10 win is not the same as a top-30 win. Similar, but not the same.”

“The idea is to seed the conference tournament based on your full season play, not just your conference standings,” Pomeroy told CBS Sports.

The WAC is coming off one of its strongest seasons in recent memory. The league finished 15th out of 32 leagues in KenPom’s rankings, its highest finish since 2013. Thornton noted that New Mexico State, which was fairly awarded a 12-seed in the 2022 NCAA tourney, won the WAC Tournament and set the conference up for its best chance at Big Dance success.

Author: Lucy Green